Graham Freudenberg climbed inside the soul of the Australian Labor Party in search of the words that lay there. He came back to us with an entire language. When Freudy said the Labor Party was built on speeches, the identity of the master builder was never a mystery to the rest of us. He spoke to us in so many voices, but in each of them he spoke with clarity and power. He moved us, he persuaded us and, in a world where words barely outlast the moment in which they are spoken, he made us remember.
It was Arthur Calwell who scored the accidental jackpot when he hired the young journalist, one who had figured out that he loved words and their power to convey ideas so much more than he loved reporting.
It was Calwell who was the recipient of the words that filled Graham with his greatest pride: warnings about the Vietnam war; warnings that broke free of the gravitational field of regular political rhetoric. Instead, Calwell was able to persuade his audience to envision the voice of right and reason overpowered by martial trumpets and drowned out by the hypnotic drumbeat of war. Vietnam was a very modern conflict, but Graham gave Calwell’s warning an unsettling, almost biblical power that somehow managed to enlist the breadth of human history to the cause. As history went on to show, his instincts were right.
Calwell was followed by a constellation of Labor luminaries, among them Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Bob Carr, Barry Unsworth and, of course, Gough Whitlam. Each of those leaders found themselves armed with an alchemist, one who took the sometimes base materials of campaign, policy and political instinct and turned them into something precious that went straight into our hearts.
Perhaps it was fitting that a man with such powers preferred to keep unusual hours. There were many fields that powered Graham through his long working nights. Lincoln kept him company, as did Churchill, Voltaire and Disraeli, along with a production line of cigarettes. And, of course, there was the great trinity of Beethoven, the Bard and a beer. You can’t argue with the result, even when it happened incrementally. According to one calculation, Graham sometimes steamed along at just three words per minute. That’s the sort of speed that might be familiar to scientists who study the movement of tectonic plates. But, as those scientists would remind you, tectonic movement can push up entire mountain ranges. Graham gave us so very many peaks.
We can only imagine how things might have turned out if Graham had succeeded in being elected to the New South Wales parliament in 1991. But, with all due respect to the denizens of that great place, there’s something fitting about Graham having been left free to serve the way that he did.
His name will be forever associated with the Australian Labor Party and all that it has always sought to be. He channelled his love for his country through his love for this party. Indeed, there is a line from Graham’s eulogy for Gough that fits its author just as perfectly:
He believed profoundly in the Australian Labor Party as the mainstay of Australian democracy and equality.
Labor’s best instincts were Graham’s instincts. As he toiled through the quiet, dark hours of so many nights, he kept brightening that light on the hill to make sure that every Australian could see it. Graham may be gone but his glow remains.
Take a moment to picture him, perhaps with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other, in splendid nocturnal isolation but never alone; perhaps as an 11-year-old boy killing time during a bout of chickenpox by falling in love with the words of Disraeli; perhaps he is at Blacktown civic centre in 1972, Gough’s hand upon his shoulder and Gough – inasmuch as Gough could whisper – whispering in his ear, ‘It’s been a long road comrade, but I think we are there’; or perhaps you’ll picture him much more recently, offering this wise reassurance in the final pages of his memoir: ‘If I have learnt anything in 44 years of political life, it is never to despair’.
So we feel sadness now at his loss, but not despair. Graham’s words stay with us forever.
To Graham’s long-term companion, Tom Kusano, I say: you are always in Labor’s embrace. As for Graham himself, it was an honour to have worked with him in Bob Carr’s office for a short period of time. May he rest in something far more wonderful than mere peace.
Anthony Albanese is the Leader of the Australian Labor Party.